GENEVA – United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai today delivered a speech an event hosted by the Graduate Institute's Geneva Trade Platform about the World Trade Organization’s important role in the global economy, why it must adapt to the rapidly changing global economy, and how it can help unlock broad-based economic prosperity.
You can watch Ambassador Tai's speech at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaKSYxJEGNk.
Ambassador Tai's remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Good afternoon. Thank you to Dmitry and Richard, the Geneva Trade Platform, and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies for hosting me today and putting together this event.
It is a pleasure to be back in Geneva. I have looked forward to making this trip since becoming the United States Trade Representative in March, and I am grateful to be here with all of you today.
I spent a lot of time in this city earlier in my career representing the United States Government with pride before the World Trade Organization.
I appreciate the importance of the institution. And I respect the dedicated professionals representing the 164 members, as well as the WTO’s institutional staff working on behalf of the membership. I also want to thank Director-General Dr. Ngozi for leading this organization through a difficult and challenging year.
Let me begin by affirming the United States’ continued commitment to the WTO.
The Biden-Harris Administration believes that trade – and the WTO – can be a force for good that encourages a race to the top and addresses global challenges as they arise.
The Marrakesh Declaration and Agreement, on which the WTO is founded, begins with the recognition that trade should raise living standards, ensure full employment, pursue sustainable development, and protect and preserve the environment.
We believe that refocusing on these goals can help bring shared prosperity to all.
For some time, there has been a growing sense that the conversations in places like Geneva are not grounded in the lived experiences of working people. For years, we have seen protests outside WTO ministerial conferences about issues like workers’ rights, job loss, environmental degradation, and climate change as tensions around globalization have increased.
We all know that trade is essential to a functioning global economy. But we must ask ourselves: how do we improve trade rules to protect our planet and address widening inequality and increasing economic insecurity?
Today, I want to discuss the United States’ vision for how we can work together to make the WTO relevant to the needs of regular people.
We have an opportunity at the upcoming 12th ministerial conference – or MC12 – to demonstrate exactly that.
Throughout the pandemic, the WTO rules have kept global trade flowing and fostered transparency on measures taken by countries to respond to the crisis. But many time-sensitive issues still require our attention. We can use the upcoming ministerial to deliver results on achievable outcomes.
The pandemic has placed tremendous strain on peoples’ health and livelihoods around the world. The WTO can show that it is capable of effectively addressing a global challenge like COVID-19, and helping the world build back better.
There are several trade and health proposals that should be able to achieve consensus in the next month and a half.
I announced in May that the United States supports text-based discussions on a waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. The TRIPS Council discussions have not been easy, and Members are still divided on this issue. The discussions make certain governments and stakeholders uncomfortable. But we must confront our discomfort if we are going to prove that, during a pandemic, it is not business as usual in Geneva.
The United States is also working on a draft ministerial decision aimed at strengthening resiliency and preparedness through trade facilitation. Our proposal would improve the sharing of information, experiences, and lessons learned from COVID-19 responses to help border agencies respond in future crises.
It is important that our work on trade and health does not end at MC12. This pandemic will not be over in December, and it will not be the last public health crisis we encounter. In the next six weeks, we also have an opportunity to conclude the two-decades-long fisheries subsidies negotiations and show that the WTO can promote sustainable development.
We want to continue working with Members to bridge existing gaps in the negotiations.
To this end, the United States is sharing options to respond to developing countries’ request for flexibilities. We believe that any agreement must establish effective disciplines that promote sustainability.
It must also address the prevalence of forced labor on fishing vessels. We call on all Members to support these goals.
I recognize that discussing these complex issues during a pandemic is hard. Despite this challenge, we can reach meaningful outcomes and set ourselves up for candid and productive long-term conversations on reforming the WTO.
As I mentioned earlier, the reality of the institution today does not match the ambition of its goals. Every trade minister I’ve heard from has expressed the view that the WTO needs reform.
The Organization has rightfully been accused of existing in a “bubble,” insulated from reality and slow to recognize global developments. That must change.
We are used to talking to each other, a lot. We need to start actually listening to each other.
We also must include new voices, find new approaches to problems, and move past the old paradigms we have been using for the last 25 years.
We need to look beyond simple dichotomies like liberalization vs. protectionism or developed vs. developing. Let’s create shared solutions that increase economic security.
By working together and engaging differently, the WTO can be an organization that empowers workers, protects the environment, and promotes equitable development.
Our reform efforts can start with the monitoring function. In committees, Members deliberate issues and monitor compliance with the agreements. This important work is a unique and underappreciated asset of the WTO.
Increasingly, however, Members are not responding meaningfully to concerns with their trade measures. The root of this problem is a lack of political will. But committee procedures can be updated to improve monitoring work.
At MC12, Ministers can direct each committee to review and improve its rules.
It is also essential to bring vitality back to the WTO’s negotiating function. We have not concluded a fully multilateral trade agreement since 2013.
A key stumbling block is doubt that negotiations lead to rules that benefit or apply to everyone. But we know that negotiations only succeed when there is real give and take.
We can successfully reform the negotiating pillar if we create a more flexible WTO, change the way we approach problems collectively, improve transparency and inclusiveness, and restore the deliberative function of the organization.
Over the past quarter century, WTO members have discovered that they can get around the hard part of diplomacy and negotiation by securing new rules through litigation.
Dispute settlement was never intended to supplant negotiations. The reform of these two core WTO functions is intimately linked.
The objective of the dispute settlement system is to facilitate mutually agreed solutions between Members. Over time, “dispute settlement” has become synonymous with litigation – litigation that is prolonged, expensive, and contentious.
Consider the history of this system.
It started as a quasi-diplomatic, quasi-legal proceeding for presenting arguments over differing interpretations of WTO rules. A typical panel or Appellate Body report in the early days was 20 or 30 pages. Twenty years later, reports for some of the largest cases have exceeded 1,000 pages. They symbolize what the system has become: unwieldy and bureaucratic.
The United States is familiar with large and bitterly fought WTO cases. Earlier this year, we negotiated frameworks with the European Union and the United Kingdom to settle the Large Civil Aircraft cases that started in 2004.
We invoked and exhausted every procedure available. And along the way, we created strains and pressures that distorted the development of the dispute settlement system.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now ask: is a system that requires 16 years to find a solution “fully functioning?”
This process is so complicated and expensive that it is out of reach for many – perhaps the majority – of Members.
Reforming dispute settlement is not about restoring the Appellate Body for its own sake, or going back to the way it used to be.
It is about revitalizing the agency of Members to secure acceptable resolutions.
A functioning dispute settlement system, however structured, would provide confidence that the system is fair. Members would be more motivated to negotiate new rules.
Let’s not prejudge what a reformed system would look like. While we have already started working with some members, I want to hear from others about how we can move forward.
Reforming the three pillars of the WTO requires a commitment to transparency. Strengthening transparency will improve our ability to monitor compliance, to negotiate rules, and to resolve our disputes.
I began these remarks with an affirmation of commitment. I’d like to conclude with an affirmation of optimism.
I am optimistic that we can and will take advantage of this moment of reflection.
In reading over the Marrakesh Agreement’s opening lines, I was struck by the founding Members’ resolve to develop “a more viable and durable multilateral trading system.”
These words are just as relevant today as they were then. We still need to work together to achieve a more viable and durable multilateral trading system.
It is easy to get distracted by the areas where we may not see eye to eye. But in conversations with my counterparts, I hear many more areas of agreement than disagreement.
We all recognize the importance of the WTO, and we all want it to succeed.
We understand the value of a forum where we can propose ideas to improve multilateral trade rules. We should harness these efforts to promote a fairer, more inclusive global economy.
WTO Members are capable of forging consensus on difficult, complicated issues. It’s never been easy, but we’ve done it before. And we can do it again.